Curry? Ask an average person on the street in India where you can get it. In all probability, you’d be met with a blank stare. The truth is, there ain’t no such thing! At least, not as it’s cooked up by the makers of ready-to-eat foods in the world’s supermarkets. Imagine if French cuisine were to be lumped together with German, Italian and Spanish cuisine as ‘European cookery’ – it may trigger off another French Revolution! Indians, however, seem unperturbed that the world refers to their astonishingly diverse cuisine simply as – curry!
So, if ‘curry’ is not quite Indian cooking, what is? That’s a subject worthy of an entire book! For now, let’s just say that India is home to as many cuisines as its states – and then some more. Climate, locally available produce, culture, foreign invasions and religion have shaped these regional cuisines over thousands of years, giving each its distinctive identity.
In the southern and coastal regions, rice rules – the ideal ‘lite’ cereal for a warm, humid climate. Large parts of western India are mainly vegetarian thanks to the influence of the Jain religion, while eastern India cannot do without its seafood. Its former Portuguese rulers heavily influenced the cuisine of Goa in southwestern India. Further north, wheat is more popular, and so is non-vegetarian food.
Eating habits are adjusted to suit the great variation between the seasons – summer foods are simple, low-fat and lightly cooked, while winter is the time to enjoy spicier, high calorie meats, whole lentils and protein-rich vegetables for warmth and energy.
There are differences in cooking oils and seasonings too, and the same ingredients cooked in one region taste different in another. Southern India goes for peanut, sunflower or coconut oil. The pungent aroma of mustard oil distinguishes food from West Bengal in the east, while many a home in the north uses ghee or clarified butter – despite the health warnings! Typically, a lentil-based gravy would be seasoned with mustard and dried red chilies in southern India. Large parts of the rest of India, though, use cumin seeds and fresh, green chilies. Ah, gravies – you think maybe you found the curry here?
What’s common to all Indian cuisines is the judicious use of varied spice combos, for their flavoring and digestive properties. Turmeric, used across India, is a powerful antiseptic. Ginger, garlic, bay leaf and asafetida combat indigestion and flatulence. Coriander and chili powder add flavor and thicken gravies (or curries, if you will!). Fenugreek is favored in hot weather for its cooling properties.
Traditionally, cooks would use freshly ground spices. But this can be tedious and unless you’re extremely picky, there’s a huge range of premixed spices in stores that will do just fine. Don’t buy just that one ‘curry powder’! Instead, look for a few dish-specific mixes. A bottle each of turmeric, chili and coriander powder will also help.
Is all Indian food spicy? Hah, another myth that needs busting! Blame all those restaurateurs who serve their unsuspecting clients generic, ‘angry’ looking ‘curries’, with bits of meat and veggies. Truth is, Indian cuisine goes from spicy to subtle, with a whole range in between to please the most sensitive of palates. Typically, a full-course meal is a delightful balanced mix of flavors and aromas (with desserts to die for). Also, it’s a flexi-cuisine; experimenting with a lower spice level won’t wreck your dinner.
Ingredients from Indian kitchens also double up as inexpensive home remedies. Ginger-flavored tea eases a sore throat; an infusion of cumin or fennel seeds can help a bad tummy. A paste of gram flour, turmeric and milk/yogurt keeps skin clean and clear; fenugreek seeds soaked in oil make for lustrous locks.
You are what you eat – while vegetarian food is believed to induce calm thoughts and sharpen the intellect, meat is thought to stoke the passions. Choose the right ingredients, and with some imagination and some magic you could rustle up a custom curry. ‘Curry’, anyone?